BACK TO OUR ROOTS: Wormwood: The stuff of holiday decor and the Green Fairy

Fredi Stangland

Common wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, a native of Europe and Northern Africa, is now commonly found in Canada and the northern United States. It is a herbaceous perennial that is grown for its ornamental foliage. The foliage is silver-green in color and it has a feathery appearance. Wormwood makes a good ornamental for a perennial bed, or to use for cutting and creating an unusual bouquet. The texture and smell are unique. (To me the leaves smell like gas or kerosene; they have a greasy feel when you run your hand down a branch, but no oil is evidenced on the hand.)

Wormwood tolerates pruning well. The foliage goes completely dormant in winter. I have read they like to multiply, so if you grow it, monitor the number of stems you have every year and if you get too many, remove them. This plant, not kept in check, would like to take over.

Woodworm likes the dry side, but it also likes nitrogen, so feed as needed. Manual application of manure in the fall and spring should do the trick.

Wormwood is easy to share with another gardener. Just dig up a piece of the plant that has roots and simply replant it.


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Absinthe makes a good green-colored alcoholic drink for the Christmas season. Decide whether you have the time and expertise to serve this fabled spirit — or, you just may want to try something new with everyone else. Your guests will remember this and it will be reminisced about at future Christmas gatherings, even virtual gatherings.

Since the 1700s, in Switzerland, wormwood has been boiled down and used as a tonic, or to aid in alimentary problems. The question of efficacy cannot be answered accurately, as all the reports I have seen were personal statements from individuals. There is no way to know whether the strength of the solution they drank was the same in all those who drank. Hence, individual anecdotes of effectiveness are all that is available from that time period.

By the late 1800s, the Belle Epoque in France, “absinthe” was the spirit of choice of painters, poets and musicians. It was made from wormwood, anise or licorice and fennel. The natural color of the drink was green, colloquially called the Green Fairy. Absinthe could be sipped straight or iced, or mixed with sugar and water.

Absinthe was so popular in social drinking France that wine producers assisted the spread of unfounded rumors about it causing seizures and hallucinations. Since the spirit was 90 to 148 proof, consuming too much, too fast, would facilitate drunkenness in a short time. And, wormwood contains Thujones, which at high levels has the ability to produce seizures and hallucinations, but the amount of Thujones in the drink is not enough to produce these effects.

During the Belle Epoque there were several sensational murders that occurred after the murderer had been drinking heavily over several days and drinking different types of alcohol, including absinthe.

It is the same old story: Even though absinthe may not be guilty, the story stuck, and absinthe was outlawed in the United States in 1912. It was not legal again here until 2007.

While this is unfortunate, there has been a mystique around the spirit that only grows with time. Absinthe is popular again with the crowd that wants to retry it in the new century, even though the recipe is the same as a century ago.

There is a new way to serve absinthe, though.

First, place a small amount of undiluted spirit in the bottom bubble of an absinthe glass. Then, straddle an absinthe perforated sugar spoon across the top of the glass. Then place a sugar cube on the spoon and light the cube on fire. Then, drip water onto the burning cube (quickly, so the cube doesn't burn out) and allow that burnt sugar water to drip down into the absinthe. The mixture in the glass will become opaque (cloudy) and turn a paler shade of green. Now, sip it.

It's an impressive presentation and one that affects multiple senses. Anticipation begins with the eyes watching the preparation, then goes to the nose as the smell of burning sugar hits, then to the ears as water drips into the absinthe glass, then back to the eyes as the mix changes color and then, finally, to the tongue.

I wonder whether the drinker keeps watching for signs of hallucinations or seizures. Even though they know, logically, that absinthe won't cause these effects, if they experience one or both, well, who knows? Where there's smoke, there's fire, and it was outlawed for 95 years, you know. They don't call it the Green Fairy for nothing. Some things never change.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, happy holidays to one and all! May your gardens rest well in the winter.

Master gardener Fredi Stangland resides in Medina.

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